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'It's an extension of my body': accessibility advocates say airlines need to change

OTTAWA — Maayan Ziv knows all too well the problems that can come from giving her motorized wheelchair to a stranger when she gets on a plane.
Maayan Ziv, founder of AccessNow, is presented with the Meritorious Service Cross by Governor General Mary Simon during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

OTTAWA — Maayan Ziv knows all too well the problems that can come from giving her motorized wheelchair to a stranger when she gets on a plane. 

"The fact that I'm even having to be separated from my wheelchair, a lot of the problems come from that," Ziv said in an interview. 

"It’s the way I move around. It affords me independence." 

That independence was stripped away from her in 2022, when she got off an Air Canada flight to find her wheelchair destroyed. 

Ziv, who lives in Toronto, was traveling to an accessibility conference in Tel Aviv. When her 11-hour flight landed, she said it looked like her wheelchair had been folded in half. 

The custom chair is critical, and isn't easily replaced. "It's not a suitcase, it's an extension of my body," she said.

That incident garnered national media attention at the time, and she is far from alone. 

On Thursday, Ziv was in Ottawa to take part in a national summit on air accessibility. 

She's a disability advocate and founder of a tech company called Access Now, which provides information about the accessibility of businesses around the world. She says there are a lot of problems airlines need to solve to make travel adequate for all. 

"There is a lack of understanding of the importance that a mobility device plays in the world of a person with a disability," Ziv said. 

She said the current solutions are responses to problems that wouldn't exist if places like airports and plans were designed to include people with disabilities. 

Part of the issue: decisions in the travel industry are primarily made by people who are able-bodied, and she said that often leads to inaccurate assumptions about who is fit to travel.

Liberal ministers told reporters on Thursday that the industry has agreed to make some changes. 

"All partners agreed to seek out ways to ensure seamless travel for persons with disabilities," said Kamal Khera, the federal minister for people with disabilities.

That includes an agreement to create a streamlined and standardized intake form at the booking stage for people who need accessibility support. 

Khera gave the airlines credit for recognizing that there are problems. 

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez said the changes need to be implemented as soon as possible, though he stopped short of setting a deadline or promising penalties for non-compliance. 

"The airline companies don't want to be in the papers because of bad services," he said.

But that has consistently been the case in recent years and it was, in part, negative media coverage that led to Thursday's summit. 

It was announced in March after airline executives testified at the House transport committee, where MPs confronted them with shocking stories from people with disabilities about the way the airlines treated them.

Among the incidents: Air Canada had left the country's chief accessibility officer's wheelchair behind on a cross-country flight. Another wheelchair user was forced to drag himself off a plane when it landed.

Last year, the Canadian Paralympic Committee demanded better transport to and from competitions after athletes complained of damaged and broken equipment. 

Air Canada said it formed an advisory committee early this year made up of customers with disabilities and set out a program for travellers to wear a lanyard that indicates to staff they may need assistance. 

At Thursday's summit, airline representatives touted their successes, with one saying that passenger surveys showed the overwhelming majority of travellers who need special assistance have positive experiences. 

Reporters were granted access to the summit on the condition that they did not directly quote what participants said during the event, outside of interviews. 

Ziv said it's good to see the federal government taking the issue more seriously.

"What were seeing from the ministers today is some actual demands for progress, accountability, real timelines and eventually, standards." 

But she said that shouldn't have to happen for airlines to take action.

"They can (improve) if they want to," she said. "The airlines can make decisions without government getting involved." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2024.

Simon Hopkins, The Canadian Press